The Sichuan bush warbler was discovered after its insect-like song attracted the notice of researchers. 19 years on, it has finally been relocated and confirmed as a new speciesA new bird species has been discovered in central China by an international team of scientists. This shy brown bird, named the Sichuan bush warbler, Locustella chengi, breeds in the mountainous region of the Sichuan Basin at 1000-2300 m elevation. Its winter home is currently unknown. This bird was first noticed whilst singing its distinctive song in May 1992 by two members of the research team, who thought it might be something new. After nearly two decades of searching, they found the bird again. Extensive analyses of the bird’s DNA, physical measurements, plumage colour and vocalisations confirmed their hunch that this is indeed a new bird species to science.
“I first heard this species together with my friend Urban Olsson when we visited the sacred Emei mountain in Sichuan province, central China in May 1992”, writes Per Alström, a professor of systematics and evolution at Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences (Sveriges Lantbruksuniversitet) and lead author on this paper. Professor Olsson, associate professor of systematics and biodiversity at the University of Gothenburg (Göteborgs universitet), is one of the many co-authors on this paper.
“We heard a song that was unfamiliar to us coming from a dense patch of tall herbs close to the trail. The song didn’t sound very ‘bird-like’, and as we couldn’t see a trace of any bird, we were debating for a little while whether it was a bird or some insect”, recalls Professor Alström.
“Although we thought it was most likely a bird.”
The sound they heard was a series of repeated phrases consisting of a drawn-out harsh note followed by a shorter note. This is the sound they heard on that particular morning in May 1992
Eventually, the two friends caught several fleeting glimpses of a small round-bodied chocolate-brown bird with a dark stubby tail, long pink legs, large dark eyes and a pointy black beak, scampering quickly through the dense underbrush. After listening and watching for awhile, they decided this shy little bird was their singer, and that it looked rather like a russet bush warbler, Locustella mandelli (pictured below) — a species that both men had previously seen and heard in northwest Thailand.